BRATTLEBORO -- It all started innocently enough with Brattleboro Rotarian Martin Cohn asking what Brattleboro Rotary could do to help the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
It was October 2012 and Cohn had just watched a report on 20/20 by Diane Sawyer that documented conditions on the reservation, which is home to the Oglala Lakota Tribe and is considered one of the poorest communities in North America.
Cohn said it was hard to believe people in the United States were living among the conditions shown in the report, and so he decided to go to Brattleboro Rotary membership to see if they would support an effort to raise money for the members of the Oglala Lakota nation.
The group agreed to take on the project and a year-and-a-half later thousands of dollars and about 85 laptop computers have been given to the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation.
"This is an international project that we are taking on in the United States," Cohn said. "We are always looking for ways to have an impact and help people who need it and that's what this project is doing."
Rotary International is an international service organization that brings business people together through local chapters to take on local and international projects.
Brattleboro Rotary is routinely involved in projects around the Brattleboro area, and has also helped raise money, as well as provide volunteers, for international projects.
The Pine Ridge Reservation project, Cohn said, is a first for the Brattleboro group in that it is a multi-year project that is outside of Windham County, yet still within the United States.
"The show was unbelievable to watch," Cohn said about the television report he saw. "I did not know people in the United States were living like that. I knew we had to do something."
Cohn said he was surprised when he called Rotary members in South Dakota to see if their local groups were helping the people on the Pine Ridge Reservation and found out there were no local projects.
So he asked the members in Brattleboro and everyone agreed it would be a good project for the group.
The project with Brattleboro Rotary might not have gotten off to such a quick start were it not for a chance encounter Cohn had at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. He was at the museum when he noticed a photograph on the wall by local photographer John Willis.
Willis has been visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation for years, and traveling there with students from In-Sight Photography to document the people and landscapes in South Dakota.
Cohn was not aware of the local connection and he was shocked when just a month after the television report aired he had found someone in Vermont who had connections with the Oglala Lakota Tribe.
Cohn tracked down Willis, and Willis was able to connect Cohn with the people who run KILI radio, the community station on the reservation.
The group raised $4,500 at its 2013 International Film and Food Festival which was sent to the station and used for equipment upgrades.
Cohn also learned that students on the reservation needed computers. He put out a call for outdated laptops and received about 150 donations.
Sam Jones, who owns a computer repair shop in Burlington and is the son of Brattleboro Rotarian Marcy Jones, agreed to take the working parts from the laptops to build updated machines.
Eventually 85 refurbished laptops were sent to the South Dakota reservation.
Cohn said the Pine Ridge project has become a long-term commitment for the Brattleboro club.
Members of the Brattleboro club are trying to organize a visit to Pine Ridge and the money raised at the 2015 International Film and Food Festival will also be dedicated to the radio station.
"Rotary gets involved and helps out where it is needed," Cohn said. "So far we've had real success with this project. We've made an impact on the people who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation."
For more information about Brattleboro Rotary Club's work, or to donate a laptop for the project, go to www.brattlebororotaryclub.com.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.